Fourteen months after the devastating Christchurch earthquake, a mood of frustration pervades the city. Aftershocks are a recipe for continuing jitters, and rebuilding work is taking longer to get started than many had expected. Much of the blame for the delay has been levelled at a divided city council, but, equally, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has not inspired a great level of confidence. A spark is clearly required. Much will, therefore, be expected of the Christchurch Central Development Unit.
Its task, as outlined yesterday by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, is to provide a clear direction for the redevelopment of the city centre, especially anchor projects. This will start with preparation of an implementation blueprint that must be delivered within 100 days. This, said Mr Brownlee, would ensure the draft plan prepared by the Christchurch City Council would be delivered "in the most cohesive and efficient manner". The unit will operate inside the recovery authority and be led by its general manager for operations, Warwick Isaacs.
On one level, this seems somewhat unusual. The recovery authority has been the critical agency for Christchurch's revival since it was established by the Government. The tools it needs are provided by wide-ranging powers. These encouraged Cantabrians to believe it would have achieved rather more than has been the case. Christchurch's Mayor, Bob Parker, has complained of the confusion created by the staff crossover between the authority and his council. Adding a further unit now to the chain of responsibility could, therefore, be problematic. Seconding council staff to it could be a recipe for even more confusion if not handled well.
Mr Brownlee's clear focus is on accelerating the redevelopment. He talks of a three-year window of opportunity to get the rebuilding and recovery framework started. If this is not achieved, momentum and confidence are lost. The halfway point of that period is approaching. Much of the city centre is still a cordoned-off demolition area, and many businesses have shifted to suburban areas. They may not return unless the redevelopment is successful.
That will very much depend on quick and sensible decisions that are accepted by the people of Christchurch. Part of that prescription should be fulfilled by the Government's general acceptance of the council's draft plan, which foresees a smaller, greener, low-rise city centre, although Mr Brownlee noted there was no commitment to finance all the projects in it. The central development unit will, hopefully, answer the other concern through close collaboration and co-operation.
Matters must improve. In February, Mr Parker described the scope of state intervention in his city as scary. He talked of the community feeling its destiny was being controlled by a bureaucracy. Mr Brownlee, for his part, has voiced his disdain for the ongoing turmoil in the dysfunctional city council, which culminated in the appointment of a Crown observer. He might also have noted that because taxpayers are carrying most of the recovery bill, it is right that the recovery authority, not the council, calls most of the shots, while paying due regard to community sentiment.
Mr Parker was in a far more conciliatory mood yesterday. He spoke of a "true partnership" between the council and the Government, and said the new unit was the best way to rebuild the city centre. It would be extremely helpful for Christchurch and the country if this sentiment were to endure. The city needs quick and efficient rebuilding if it is to recapture its eminence. And a sideways economy needs the stimulus of that redevelopment to kick in as soon as possible.